In support of Mental Health Awareness month, we are exploring ways to practice positive mental health habits in conjunction with Mental Health America’s recommendations. Good self care is fundamental to positive mental health. It is important to recognize that everyone can protect and improve their mental health by practicing good physical health habits.
What is Self Care?
Self care is the practice of doing for ourselves that which we often do for others - meeting our physical, emotional, spiritual, financial and other needs. Self care encompasses everything from brushing your teeth to doing your nails to washing your clothes, and prayer/meditation, exercise, sexual expression and paying bills.
In many cases, it requires a commitment to putting ourselves first. Parents, especially women, are at risk of neglecting our own self care as we spend so much time and energy caring for others. Many men who are primary caretakers of children, grandchildren and aging parents also fall into this trap.
How Does Self Care Relate to Good Mental Health?
Not only those with a chemical imbalance are at risk for mental health problems. Anyone can succumb to the more common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Because the mind and body are one, whatever you do to care for your body also impacts your brain. Basic self care such as eating well, getting enough exercise, good sleep habits, etc. affect both mind and body. These habits protect us from illness, both physical and mental.
7 Self Care Practices That Impact Mental Health
· Get enough sleep. Sleep is so very important. Important bodily processes are at work while we sleep at night. Good sleep hygiene involves cutting out caffeine after 5 PM, turning off electronics two hours before bedtime, eating your last meal two or more hours before you turn in for the night, going to bed early enough to get 6-8 hours of sleep, darkening the room you sleep in, and so on.
· Learn to relax. Rest and relaxation are critical to managing stress and minimizing anxiety. Those who find it difficult to let go and relax may find a yoga, breathing or stress management classes helpful. Regulating your breath has a calming effect on the mind and loosens tension held in the body. Sitting quietly at home for 5-10 minutes each day to simply be aware of your breathing can enhance relaxation.
· Engage in good conversation. Spending time with good friends or engaging in stimulating conversation with someone at work is good for the soul (mind and body). When we share our thoughts with others, we establish an emotional and mental connection that can be refreshing and heartwarming. Even phone calls or Skype contacts with people you love can have a lasting impact on your mental and physical health.
· Move around every day. Exercise does not have to be a miserable experience with weights. Gardening, playing with your pets, shopping, invigorating sex - all of these are ways to move your body and improve your mood.
· Hygiene is important. There is a subtle connection between how we look and how we feel. When our mood and energy are low, it is tempting to let ourselves go physically. However, there is something magical about water. It cleanses our bodies and our minds. Even on days when you plan to be at home alone, if you need a boost to your mood and energy, a quick shower may offer a lift up. This is not about how you look, although putting on clean clothes also seems to send a message to our psyche that we value ourselves. That subtle message can shift something inside – consider it a sense of self worth. If you really want a boost to your mood – brush your hair and your teeth! NOTE: For those who work every day and are exhausted on the weekend, a day in your PJs without bathing can also be therapeutic.
· Find something positive. The gratitude movement is pretty mainstream now, and there is actually research to support it. Little things like saying thank you to someone for a small gesture such as holding the door, expressing your appreciation to a spouse/partner, coworker or child and writing thank you notes for gifts can make a difference for both you and the other person. Oprah, Deepak Chopra and others recommend keeping a daily gratitude journal where you write down several things each day that you are grateful for or appreciate. It helps to identify five things at the end of the day that went well or left you feeling gratitude.
· Keep up with your medical needs. Annual physicals, biannual dental checkups and cleanings, mammograms, pap smears, etc. are proactive habits for good health. Many advocate an annual mental health screening, which may be part of the annual physical at some point. Taking care of your body in this way prevents problems later. If you are doing all of the other things recommended, eating nutritious food, exercising at least three times a week, etc., these periodic checkups may be less stressful and more productive. Again, you are sending a message to your brain that you are worthy of your own time, care and energy; this can impact your mental health in a positive way.
A Word to Those Who are Family Caregivers
Caregiving for an older loved one, disabled person or child can be all consuming. It is easy to get so busy that we neglect our own needs and well being. In some cases, this may be unavoidable, but many times there are options that would allow you to take time for yourself. We have written about this in other articles. Please read more if you are struggling to balance your own needs with the needs of others.
1. Harvard Health Publications. (2011). In Praise of Gratitude. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2011/November/in-praise-of-gratitude
2. Mental Health America. (2014). Social Support: Getting and Staying Connected. http://ww2w.mentalhealthamerica.net/may
3. National Sleep Foundation. (2014). Healthy Sleep Tips. http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-tools-tips/healthy-sleep-tips